Celebrating the Uniqueness of Montessori Part 2
The Prepared Environment
One of Maria Montessori's first insights was that children have an innate desire to learn. However, just because this drive is innate doesn't mean learning can happen by itself! A child who is left alone in an empty room won't be able to learn very much, because their natural intelligence has nothing to engage with. Montessori recognized that natural, self-directed learning can only occur in the context of a rich environment, full of meaningful and developmentally-appropriate experiences. This, then, is the second major distinctive feature of Montessori education: the prepared environment.
"Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment."
The Curriculum on the Shelves
If you want to imagine the difference between a traditional school curriculum and the Montessori curriculum, a good shorthand might be this: a traditional school curriculum is presented sequentially over time, while the Montessori curriculum is presented sequentially across space. In a traditional school, the teacher breaks up the day into time slots, and in each time slot, the children are given the materials they need for that activity. When the slot finishes, those materials are put away, and the next set of materials is provided. Because only one activity takes place at a time, the classroom space (aside from wall decorations) is often very simple.
In a Montessori classroom, the entire curriculum is on the shelves, available to students at all times. Rather than being represented by a time schedule, the curriculum is embodied in the design of the room: every subject area has its own shelves, and within that area materials are consistently organized in order of complexity, from left to right and top to bottom. Every activity has its own defined space and its own complete set of pieces, and materials from different areas may be color-coded according to their subject. This physical organization is the foundation of independent learning: it allows students to easily find the activities that fit their interests and skill level by themselves.
People who went to traditional schools often wonder how on earth children are supposed to learn seemingly abstract concepts like mathematics without constant adult direction. Most of us were taught these ideas primarily using textbooks, worksheets, and pencils. It would have been impossible for us to use these tools to develop mathematical skills independently-- and we wouldn't have wanted to. Not many children freely choose to sit down, take out a textbook, and complete a worksheet on their own, especially not day after day. Even people who enjoy worksheets don't love them that much!
In a Montessori classroom, however, children don't learn abstract concepts with pencils and paper. Rather, they learn first with materials which are designed to represent abstract concepts using concrete manipulatives-- what Maria Montessori called "materialized abstractions". The teacher introduces various manipulatives in stages, demonstrating for the child different ways they can be used, after which the child is able to continue practicing independently or with friends as often as they need to. Over time, practice with the concrete objects is connected to abstract concepts, and writing is introduced as a means of recording the concrete work. When the child's understanding of the subject is sufficiently developed, their interest in manipulatives will fade, and they will comfortably do work using only pencil and paper.
Control of Error
In the last article, we mentioned that Montessori guides avoid pointing out children's mistakes. This idea is often shocking to educators from a mainstream background. How do children know when they've done something right? Are they just allowed to keep doing things wrong forever? In traditional classrooms, pointing out when children are wrong is considered necessary for learning. How do Montessori children complete activities correctly without the teacher checking them?
For young children, especially at the beginning of their learning process, adult correction is often distracting and discouraging. We want the child to be able to immerse themselves in their activity without looking over their shoulder for adult approval. Therefore, Montessori materials are designed with a built-in control of error which allows children to judge for themselves whether the activity has been done correctly. Materials for young children often achieve this in much the same way as a puzzle: the pieces can only fit together in a certain way. If the activity is done wrong, something won't fit, which naturally motivates the child to experiment until they figure it out. These early activities in turn build skills like matching, sequencing, and following a process, which then become the foundation for the "soft" control of error used in works for older children. As children develop their sense of order, it becomes a sort of internal compass that allows them to work with increasingly complex materials and identify their own mistakes.
Beauty & Calm
Finally, a Montessori prepared environment must be beautiful and peaceful. Too often, young children are put in environments where gaudy, brightly colored walls are used to distract from the fact that the toys and materials they are given are of poor quality: games with missing pieces, dolls with missing limbs, plastic food that's cracked and dented, incomplete sets of alphabet blocks. Older children are expected to learn at scratched desks and read from torn books. The classroom decoration is made to look cheerful and lively, but the objects that children actually use are allowed to become dirty, damaged, and unappealing.
In Montessori spaces, we want the works on the shelves to call to the children, to inspire them to explore and concentrate deeply. Therefore, the classroom activities are made with high-quality materials and always kept clean and complete. The classroom decoration will usually be understated-- neutral tones, plants, framed artwork on the walls, pleasant without being overstimulating or distracting. The important features of the space are the things that the child can use to further their development; nothing that they cannot interact with should compete for their attention.
The prepared environment is so important to Montessori education that it's been said that the job of a Montessori guide is half environmental design! While it's certainly true that preparing the environment is a huge part of the guide's responsibilities, what about the other half? If children are supposed to be learning independently, what does the teacher do all day? In the next article, we'll take a look at the third distinctive component of Montessori education: the role of the adult.
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